Chief White Crane State Recreation Area, sitting on the mighty Missouri River, offers a lovely wooded retreat and plenty of opportunities for fun on the water. Sporting a bucolic and well-maintained campsite with over 140 RV sites, the park is both a great stopover for those traveling across the Midwest and a scenic destination in its own right.
Tall, yawning cottonwoods and the sparkling waters of Yankton Lake greet visitors to White Crane. The 250-acre body of water, which sits right next to the Missouri, is formed by flows from the nearby Gavin’s Point Dam, which also forms the massive Lewis and Clark Lake. The shores of both lakes are dotted with multiple parks and recreation areas, each with their own boat launches, picnic areas, trails and more. Yankton Lake, though modest compared to Lewis and Clark, offers wonderful opportunities for paddling and fishing. The water is rich with bass, walleye and various species of panfish. These fishy residents do more than just attract anglers; they also draw eagles. White Crane supports a large population of bald eagles, which can be seen nesting and foraging in huge numbers during winter.
White Crane, just a few miles from the large town of Yankton, South Dakota, is easily accessible. Reservations at its campground can be made up to three months in advance over the phone or online.
Chief White Crane is easily accessible, but the route you’ll take will depend on whether you’re coming from the South Dakota or the Nebraska side. Those approaching from Nebraska will take NE-121 to Crest Rd., which crosses the Missouri and then provides a turn off into the park. South Dakota travelers will take SD-52 to reach Crest Rd., and they can turn into the park without crossing the river. Both SD-52 and NE-121 are easily accessed via US-81, which also cuts through the large nearby town of Yankton. Those looking for supplies or just about any other amenities can find them in Yankton, which is a full-service town offering groceries, camping supplies, restaurants, theatres, banks, museums, additional camping and more.
Roads to and within the park are paved and well-maintained. You should not find any sharp curves or steep hills in this part of the country, so rest easy.
Parking shouldn’t pose much of a challenge to RVers and trailer-pullers; all of White Crane’s sites are back-in, but they are also quite long (most being 70-75 ft). The campground loops turns are gentle, and though a few spots may require some extra patience and maneuvering, overall the experience should be easy. Most everything can be reached on foot once you’re at the park, though the boat launches do have additional parking areas. The facilities at neighboring Lewis & Clark and Pierson Ranch Recreation Areas are just a short drive away.
The campground at Chief White Crane SRA is comprised of several neighboring loops strung out along the eastern shore of Lake Yankton. Sites are partially or mostly shaded by the area’s native broadleaf species, primarily cottonwoods.
In total, there are 146 RV sites, in addition to several lakeside rental cabins. The sites at White Crane offer 50 amp electric hookups, but do not offer water or sewage hookups. The grounds have several potable water spigots and a sanitary dump station, however. Additional amenities include several modern restrooms with showers (in addition to vault toilets), several playgrounds, sheltered picnic areas, a horseshoe pit, an easily accessible fishing pier and an amphitheater. Everything is reachable via foot travel, as the park is fairly small - a short hiking/nature trail circumnavigates most of the campground, too.
Sites are all reservable, either by phone or via South Dakota’s Game Fish and Parks website. Spots can be reserved up to three months in advance.
Boating is one of the most popular activities at Chief White Crane SRA. There are several miles of cottonwood-lined shores and over 250-acres of surface water to explore. Two convenient boat launches offer easy access to visitors, and the park’s concessionaire also rents out kayaks and canoes for day use. The lake’s waters are almost always placid, offering a peaceful setting for boaters to paddle, fish, or simply soak up a warm South Dakota sun.
Lake Yankton, sitting on the Missouri River and formed by the Gavin’s Point Dam, provides excellent fishing opportunities for eager anglers. Find a spot along the sandy shoreline, head to one of the park’s fishing piers, or take a boat out onto the sparkling water. Largemouth bass, walleye, black crappie, bluegill and channel catfish are among the species anglers can expect to pull from the lake. Make sure you have a valid South Dakota State fishing license before heading out!
For the competitive and the casual alike, Chief White Crane SRA provides great opportunities for summer fun. The park sports a lovely sand-lined volleyball court, a basketball court, and a horseshoe pit. Come summertime, you can play under clear blue skies as cottonwood leaves blow gently in the breeze - work up a sweat and then enjoy a meal at one of the park’s lovely picnic areas! When it’s really sweltering, take a dip in the cool waters of Lake Yankton.
Heavy snows transform the landscape at Chief White Crane SRA, turning hiking and biking trails into excellent cross-country skiing routes. White Crane receives about three feet of the white stuff annually. The park also sees much less visitation during winter (in part due to driving restrictions) so skiers can expect to have a fair bit of territory to themselves. You can sail across a gently rolling landscape, through leafless forests or along the frozen shores of Yankton Lake.
‘South Dakota’ might not evoke images of fall foliage in the same way that ‘Vermont’ or ‘Michigan’ does, but the woodlands of Chief White Crane put on an impressive display every autumn. The primary tree species at White Crane is the thick, widely-spreading and water-loving cottonwood; cottonwoods line the shores and campgrounds and form thick groves in some places, and they turn a marvelous shade of gold once the days of fall begin to grow chilly. Cottonwood leaves are fickle, and fall off easily, so the leafing window is quite short!
Gavin’s Point Dam spits out vast jets of Missouri River water into Yankton Lake; this moving water doesn’t freeze, nor does the part of the lake where it enters into. During the winter, then, this huge non-icy patch becomes a boon to birds of prey, which can dive into the unfrozen water in search of fish. Chief White Crane supports a large population of bald eagles, which nest in the shoreline cottonwoods and scoop bass and bluegill from the lake. Visitors can expect to see dozens of the majestic birds if they visit during the right time of year. Because of heavy nesting, the park is closed to vehicle traffic for most of winter - walkers and cross-country skiers are still welcome, though.